Communication vital on family farms

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MEADVILLE, Pa. – A family farm is a unique business environment, one where family and business interests overlap and multiple generations coexist.
Bernie Erven, professor emeritus of agricultural economics at Ohio State University, addressed the challenges of farming as a family at the recent Northwest Pa. Regional Dairy Day, held at Allegheny College.
Family vs. business. The unique environment, Erven said, includes family pride, values, the operation’s history and the willingness to sacrifice drive the business to success.
All members of the family farm wear three hats: family, business, and personal. Many times, members of the family are talking from one perspective and the message is received from one of the others.
When Dad expects the next generation to come home and be part of the labor force and the son returns from college to fix what Dad didn’t do right – this generates conflict, Erven said.
Without real communication among family members, it is difficult to resolve the issues that come up.
At the top. Erven presented guidelines for the top manager, usually the older generation, and guidelines for family members, the younger generation.
He challenged the audience to know why they are in business and to write that down, and encourage farmers to have the second generation return in an employer-employee arrangement for a testing period.
As difficult as it may be, write out job descriptions, added Erven. The senior manager needs prepare the next generation for their future responsibilities.
Don’t assume. Opening up communications is vital, the farm human resources expert said. Don’t assume, ask and “say it.”
Erven said over and over again he hears, “We don’t communicate; we don’t talk; we don’t have meetings. We never have minutes, then we can change our minds.”
“Would you expect any organization or committee to function without meetings or minutes?” asked Erven.
The next generation. When beginning on the family farm, family members need to earn the respect and confidence of their parents as contributors to the operations which isn’t the same as being a son or daughter.
Erven offered several suggestions to make the transition easier.
“Seek responsibility,” he said. Find jobs that no one else wants to do, take them on and do them well.
Become competent in handling your responsibilities. To gain respect and confidence, let Dad know that he can trust you to do your job and know that it has been done well.
In other recommendations for the next generations, Erven added: have a consistent mood; admit mistakes; and establish a home independent of your parents.
“If Mom still washes your underwear, you’re not ready for a partnership,” he said.
The ‘outsiders.’ For in-laws who do not have farm backgrounds, special nurturing will help them understand farm culture. Erven recalled a young farm wife who told him, “Just once, I would like to sit at the Christmas dinner table and not talk about cows.”
As the younger generation comes on board, they also need to build good relationships with the nonfamily people working on the farm. Erven said sometimes farm workers watch the intergenerational goings-on like a “soap opera without commercials.”
They also often fear that the new generation may take their jobs.
Constant evaluation. Everyone in the farm business should be evaluating the business, Erven said.
Erven reminded the farmers, to “ask, don’t guess!” when it comes to evaluating the business.

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